Never let it be said that I’m a stubborn man. Well, okay, no, not that so much, but only a short while ago I was owning up to the shame that I’d probably never read this book and yet here I am — following reassurances from no less authorities than Nick Fuller and TomCat — reviewing, and so presumably having read, it. Here’s the heart-in-my-hands moment: Crispin wrote 4½ great books, then a terrible one, then this one, then another terrible one, and this was the only one I’d not read. But it’s bracketed by two books so awful that I’d wipe them out of existence, so my fears were, I feel, well-founded. And you want to know what I thought, right? Were my reservations borne out? Who was right? Ohmygod the tension…well, let’s get into it.
We’ve all done it — in the excitement of finally stumbling across a novel by an author we’ve heard a lot about (or maybe heard nothing about, if you’re feeling adventurous) you snap up a book, take it home…and it lingers and lingers on your TBR, staring at you every time you go near your bookshelves to pick something out. The guilt of its unread-ness builds inside of you, but the inclination to actually open it and read it never quite matches the initial rush of blood to the head that saw you buy it in the first place.
I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, I spend many hours online enthusiastically contributing to discussions about a moderately obscure area of popular culture — hell, I even wear glasses. I must, therefore, be a nerd. I mean, sure, I don’t own a single t-shirt emblazoned with some hilarious-but-obscure quote or image, but that’s mainly because the kinds of things I’d put on a t-shirt — “Hairy Aaron!” or, say, a decal of Gideon Fell above the legend Don’t irritate a man who knows 142 ways to kill you without being the same room — no-one else wants on a t-shirt and so they’re not available to buy.
Okay, so I’m going to do my best to stay on-task today; none of these wild flights of fancy. A discussion of Golden Age academic mystery and nothing more. And since I already have my post sorted for next Tuesday, and that’s the final week in June, it has to be now that I engage in some discussion about Edmund Crispin and the irrepressible Gervase Fen. Continue reading →
Any conversation about Marsh, see, veers into the debate over the Queens of Crime which is rife with obviously-Christie, pro-Sayers (hmmm), anti-Mitchell (yay!), possibly-Allingham (wooo!) debate, but Brad says that his personal “Queens of Crime” included John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. And I thought: hang on a minute, male monarchs? There’s a word for that…
Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each. But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.
So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it. And so, alphabetically by author, we have:
Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin
The second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously. My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection. Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat. And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]
Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’ Continue reading →
I will probably put this very poorly, so bear with me.
I am an Agatha Christie fan. I am also, you may have noticed, a fan of John Dickson Carr, and of Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Rupert Penny, Kelley Roos, and Constance & Gwenyth Little. What these detective fiction writers have in common is two-fold: firstly they are all dead, so their output is now a fixed and known quantity, and secondly it is my express intention to read everything they ever published in the crime fiction sphere. In some cases this may not be achievable – though with the recent increase in GA reprints it’s to be hoped that these will be picked up before too long – but I intend to give it my best shot nonetheless.
Do anything for long enough – spelunking, chicken farming, marriage, presenting live television – and you’re bound to make some mistakes. Thus, no novelist with more than a few books to their name is going to have a perfect run, even allowing for the subjectivity of readers’ opinions; class being permanent and form being temporary, everyone writes a dud now and then. Which brings us to Buried for Pleasure, the sixth of Edmund Crispin’s nine detective novels based around Gervase Fen, Professor of English Literature at a fictional Oxford college, sometime detective, and springer spaniel in human form. A more likeable, enthusiastic, and chaotic protagonist you are unlikely to find, and here the joys of Don-ship have worn off and so Fen has decided to stand for parliament as an MP for an out-of-the-way country constituency in the upcoming General Election. And then there’s a murder, and then another murder, and our springer spaniel is suddenly up to his bloodhound tricks again…
So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you? After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring. You’re always saying that, aren’t you? Sensible person that you are. So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).
My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now. It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it. Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared? The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible: